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Monday, October 31, 2011

BOO! Unexpected Company, 1970; or The Man on The Couch

In the same way that trailers are not known for their excellent plumbing or their ability to stay earthbound in a stiff wind, they are also not known for being soundproof; and I was awakened one night by a shift in the usual nocturnal noises. I was a light sleeper, the result of sharing a bed with my sister, who wet it until she was six. There are few things as distressing as waking in a puddle of someone else’s urine.

I looked at the clock next to the bed: 12:20. Dad was at a gig. Mom should either be in the living room, watching TV, vodka gimlet on the coffee-table, or in the back bedroom, listening to talk radio, vodka gimlet on the nightstand. I could hear neither the TV nor the radio.

I pushed Karen’s leg off me and she snorted in her sleep. “If I tole you once,” she droned, “I tole you a t’ousan…” Her muttering collapsed into a snore.

I got out of bed and opened the door. My mother was dead-set against children creeping around the house at night. We were allowed up only if we had to “p, p, or p” -- pee, poop, or puke. Anything else could wait until the morning. Mother enforced this rule by making waffles, sloppily, the first available weekend and requiring that the offender do the dishes. In our house, this was a good deterrent.

I had just entered my parents’ half-closed bedroom door at the far end of the trailer when I heard the sound of a man’s voice behind me. It was not my father’s.

I turned toward it, then back to my parents’ room. I pushed open the door. The radio on the nightstand was on, the ice in the vodka gimlet was melting, iridescently, but where was my mother? I heard the voice again, coming from the living room.

“Come ‘ere!”

I was suddenly aware of my blood moving through my veins, pudding-thick. I didn’t know this man’s voice. I didn’t like its tone.

I got on my hands and knees and crept down the hall toward the voice. All of the rooms were on my left: the bathroom, mine and Karen’s room, our brother Kevin’s, and then the living room.

I pause, less than a foot from the living room. The drapes are closed. The only light in the room filters in from the streetlights through the sheers behind the couch.

My mother is standing just inside the living room. I can almost touch her, but I don’t. She is staring in the direction of the couch.

The outline of a man’s head is framed against the window. It is dark enough in the room that he is all outline, no details. He is sitting on our couch, smoking a cigarette.

“Come sit by me.”

“No, thank you,” my mother says. There is a tremble in her voice I have never heard before.

“I said, come ‘ere!” the man says, louder. His voice is slurred. I raise my hand to my mouth, afraid I will cry out. I don’t want him to know I am here.

“And I said, no, thank you,” my mother says. She does sit, though, in the chair just to the left of the entry into the living room. I can no longer see her. On my hands and knees, I move in as far as I dare. I can make out her profile. Fear leaches the iron from my blood, and I am wide-eyed and boneless.

“I was in ‘Nam,” he says.

“I see,” my mother says.

The man on the couch leans forward. “I died,” he said. “I DIED. They putta metal plate in my head, man, an’ I don’t know why --” he trails off. There is silence as he lifts a bottle out of the shadow of his lap and takes a long drink. I feel nauseous. The only phone is in the kitchen, and it’s on the other side of the living room. The back door cannot be opened without making noise. The windows are louvered six-inch slats.

The man on the couch suddenly shouts. “I DIED!”

“I’m sorry,” my mother says, quietly.

“She’s sorry,” he slurs, head slumping forward. “I died f’yer sins,” he mutters. He raises the bottle to his lips, tips his head, then the bottle. Framed by the streetlight through the window behind him, he looks as if he’s been cut out of black construction paper.

The absence of sound presses on my eardrums. I fight the urge to swallow, afraid he will hear it.

Finally my mother speaks. “Thank you,” she says.

The man on the couch takes another long drink, belches loudly and drinks again. I finally dare to swallow, imagining that the sound of his own swallowing will drown mine out. The man on the couch tucks his bottle between his legs. He raises his arms.

“We c’n do innythin we wan’ ‘ere,” he slurs. “This MY worl’. I died, goddamit. I died, an’ now –“ He spreads his arms grandly, and his head flops backward. “I am the TIME WIZARD.”

“Oh,” my mother says. Her voice is very soft.

I watch his arms move, their silhouettes against the windows, in what I imagine to be karate moves. Suddenly he stops, his arms raised above his head. He takes a deep breath. Time stops as the world waits for what will come next.

“I’m the TIME WIZARD!” he shouts. “This MY worl’, an’ wha’ we do ‘ere, stays ‘ere, unnerstan’? Y’unnerstan’? We c’n do wevver we wan’. We ca’go f’ard. We ca’ go bakkard.” His hands weave a scrolling tapestry of drunkenness and delusion in the air. He reminds me of footage of Charles Manson.

“Forward and backward?” my mother says. “In time?”

“Wevver. In time, yeah,” he says.

“And what do you have in mind?” my mother says. Her voice sounds calm and patient – and familiar. I’ve heard this tone before. In the deep black of the trailer, my fear steps back. My mother has a plan.

“Innythin’. We ca’…” he trails off, confused.

His head drops forward again, and I watch the lit end of his cigarette as he grinds his fist into his temple.

His head snaps up abruptly. “I diddit fer YOU, man! I died fer YOU. I served my COUNTRY, goddammit!” He is breathing heavily, and my hands begin to shake. I shove them under my knees, sitting on them. I think of my father on the stage of the Crow Bar on the other side of town. I imagine he is half-way through their version of “Born to be Wild”, a leather aviator’s hat on his head, smiling.

The man on the couch raises his bottle and drinks. The hand with the bottle drops into his lap. The hand with the cigarette appears. His pupils and the end of his nose glow as he inhales. “I diddit fer you.”

In the darkness, my mother speaks. “Of course you did.” Her voice is friendly, almost conspiratorial. “You served your country. You’re goddam right. You’re a hero. And believe me, I appreciate everything you’ve done“ – she stops – “ I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”

The man is staring drunkenly in the direction of my mother. “Uh. Mark,” he says. Her request for his name has caught him off-guard. He lifts the bottle to his lips and drinks.

“Mark,” she continues. Her voice is warm and firm, slow and kind, as if speaking to a child. “I appreciate the sacrifices you made. You’ve suffered. I hear it in your voice. You think I don’t know that? Do you think I don’t know that, Mark? You’re a hero, Mark. A hero. But do you get any credit? No. They got ya comin’ and goin’, don’t they, Mark? Comin’ and goin’.”

Mark has been completely still since my mother started talking. He now bobs his head slowly, and I find myself nodding, too. “Comin’ an’ goin’,” he repeats.

“That’s right, Mark. But we know, don’t we? You’re goddam right we do. You soldiers don’t get the respect you deserve.” She pauses. “I’ve learned a lot tonight. But, Mark, I have to tell you: you know, I work in the morning. You didn’t call first…”

Mark nods heavily at this. It’s true. He didn’t call. His silhouette loses its edges as he slumps drunkenly forward.

My mother raises her right arm into the air. “Here’s to calling first next time, huh, Mark?” Mark’s head snaps up. “Come on, Mark!” she says. “Raise yer drink! To the good ol’ USA! I’ll drink to that!”

My mother brings an imaginary drink to her lips and knocks it back. Mark raises his bottle. “Ahl drinka tha’!”, he bawls. He puts the bottle to his lips and drinks deeply.

“Chin up, Mark! Rally the troops!”

“Ahl drinka tha’!” He drinks again. He belches loudly.

“’scuse me,” he says.

My mother stands. “I’m glad we met. You know, we almost didn’t meet, do you know that?” She rises from her chair and walks to the front door. She opens it and looks to the form on the couch.

“I appreciate everything you’ve done. I really do. You’re all right in my book, Mark. Yes, you are. Now you make sure that you drink plenty of water before you go to bed tonight, you’ll do that for me, won’t you?”

I am in awe of my mother.

Mark stands drunkenly, nodding, patting the couch absentmindedly for fallen keys or coins, makes sure he’s leaving with everything he came in with. He stumbles against the coffee table, and she catches him as he crashes into the railing around the dining room. She pushes him toward the door as if they are jostling in line for seconds. She pushes him out the front door and on to the front steps.

In the hall doorway, I stand, rubbing the shag-carpet indentations on my knees. I feel ridiculously relieved. Mark is gone.

“You have a restful night now,” my mother says, shutting the door. “Don’t be a stranger,” she calls.

“Hey,” he yells. My mother opens the door a crack.

“Hey,” he slurs. “Hey, hey. Ah jus’ wanna –“

“You’re welcome,” my mother says. She shuts the door and locks it.

She turns, with an enormous sigh. Seeing me in the hallway, she cocks her head quizzically; and I say what all us kids say when we are caught out of bed after lights out:

“I had to poop.”


Kristy said...

I love how you tell a story, girl. Not many in blog land can weave one like that and keep interest each time. That must have been burned in your memory! It reminds me of a time that my mom let a homeless man in our house one December. We were decorating our tree. Then she got scared of him, got him out, and we left the house and drove to the church where my dad was at.

Everyday Goddess said...

I'm with you! I would have pooped right then and there.

My God your mother was a genius!

You are too my friend. You are too.

Pearl said...

Kristy, thank you. :-) And I'm glad it brought up a memory for you -- maybe one you can write about?! :-)

Pearl said...

Everyday Goddess, can I add your name tothe reference section of my resume?! :-) There'll be a little asterisk next to your name to lead you to the bottom of the sheet where it will say "This woman believes that I am a genius". :-)

Shelly said...

Gosh, Pearl, you tell a great story! I'd have thrown the vodka gimlet at him, perhaps. Your mom sure knows how to keep a cool head-

mybabyjohn/Delores said...

I think I held my breath through the whole thing.
Yer damn right I did!

Leenie said...

Wheeeeeeeeooooo! That's a long time to hold my breath. Think I mighta been sittin' in a puddle if I'd been there. Great bit of writing. Read every word even though I'm going to be late now. But I'm not sorry--just a little spooked. Sheesh your mom is a cool one.

Glen said...

you are awesome - and I guess we see where it came from...

Pearl said...

Shelly, she's a cool cucumber. :-)

Delores, that's awesome!

Leenie, sorry you'll be late! :-)

Glen, more praise than I deserve, I'm sure, but so much of the good stuff I got is from my mom, and that's for sure!

Joshua said...

Sitting down on a couch the morning after a party only to find that the person who had passed out there and left before you woke up had pissed on the couch. Being peed on is one thing, but sitting in cold urine might be worse.

terlee said...

Sitting in the morning sunshine, drinking my first cup of coffee, and in broad daylight chills shiver up my spine reading your story. Yikes..!! Great coolness on your mom's part.

Happy Halloween. You kicked mine off just fine, thank you very much...

Linda Myers said...


Kara said...

I love the way you tell a story! I was right there in the hallway with you!

Lisa said...

This one deserves a prize. Seriously. Such a great story so well told.

looby said...

What a woman to stay calm like that. A fantastic bit of psychology on your mum's part. I thought that was going to end badly at one point.

Eva Gallant said...

You weave a great tale! Loved it. Perfect for Halloween!

Cedar View Paint Horses said...

This is my second time reading this, and it felt like the first. This is one of your best, Pearl.

Belle said...

Your mom was smart. Good for her for keeping her cool. I've had homeless people walk into my house before. Keeping cool is the best solution.

Nessa Roo said...

Very nice. Your mother reminds me of my mother. She would have handled it the same way, and I've got to say, I am rather proud of that.
Great story.

Beth M. Wood said...

Fantastic story telling Pearl. Seriously, this one must be submitted. Truly.

Mamma has spoken said...

Great story! I don't think I could have done what you did though, I think I would have done all three p's within the first minute!

Saimi said...

Yep, I would have pooped too... long before my mom caught me!

jabblog said...

I'm in awe - at your mother's coolness and at your telling of the story.

jenny_o said...

Mesmerizing! I loved this the first time I read it - and it's just as good the second time around. Your mom is a smart lady.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

Yeah. Your Mom? She kicks a$$. Just like you. Live this post.

The Vegetable Assassin said...

Poor guy. That is quite sad. Scary sure, but also sad. Your mom is a genius at dealing with possible unsavoury situations. A bit like yourself!

Um...to clarify, YOU are not an unsavoury situation... Not normally. :)

Shrinky said...

Goodness Pearl, what a terrifying situation your mother, so very cleverly, deflected from tragedy. I love a woman with a cool head - almost as much as I love one with the power to write as well as you do!

Crystal Pistol said...

My heart was racing as I read. Jeez, man! Your mom? Wow. WOW!

aBroad said...

Can you hear the applause coming to you all the way from Argentina ?

Susan Kane said...

I was afraid to breathe. Your mother was brilliant. You were, too.

jimmiehov said...

Hi Pearl ~~ Thank you for visiting my Succintly Yours post (via Sparkle Farkle).

This one made my day! [I'm still smiling, :)]. I couldn't get to the next word fast enough, I was just waiting for a shoe to drop. That Mom is sooooo clever.

My favorite line was "Fear leaches the iron from my blood, and I am wide-eyed and boneless." I was boneless too!

I noticed these are written as if they were tales from your childhood. The living in a trailer bit adds a lot to the credibility of these being true. Or partly true.

Joyful Things said...

wow! I was worried and my heart is racing. I think you should quit your job at Wing Nuts and Dead Bolts and write full time. You are a great writer and your mom is an amazing, brave, woman.

Linda O'Connell said...

Holy Sh*t!

ipenka said...

That was great. Building suspense without shoving it down our throats. I really enjoyed that.

Jerry said...

You certainly had me on the edge of my seat. So well told.

Bodacious Boomer said...

I feel so inadequate today. Most everyone else told a spookiyish story at their and I did not.

You had me til the end young one.

Gigi said...

Wow, Pearl! What a story!

Diane said...

Storytelling at its finest. Fabulous, fabulous story. Intriguing. Scary. Totally believable. I am in awe!

Susan in the Boonies said...

Oh, geez, Pearl, that's one of the scariest Halloween stories I've ever heard.

Now, if you'll 'scuse me, I'm gonna go lock the door.

Don't be a stranger, ya hear?

Leenie said...

Came back again to savor the words. You've got serious story-telling skills, Pearl. I so hope you get the recognition you deserve.

The Elephant's Child said...

Wow. I am now an attractive blue colour after holding my breath as I read. So glad that your mama is a courageous woman who thinks on her feet. And is able to capture and use the perfect words for a challenging situation. A skill she passed on.

R. Jacob said...

I hope you had two bathrooms because I think Mom had to poop too!

The Jules said...

Such a great post this. Felt like I was actually there.

Er, excuse me. Need to nip to the loo . . .

Fragrant Liar said...

I bow to you. This was incredibly well done.

River said...

I'm in awe of your mom and how she managed to defuse the situation. Vietnam messed up so many people.

Roses said...

Wow. You really do know how to tell a spine-tingler. And my spine was definitely tingling.

Your mom rocks.

jen said...

I came over here from f8hasit and I'm very glad I did--you are a wonderful storyteller! I am very much looking forward to reading more! Thanks for sharing your stories. You have a definite gift for it.

Daisy said...

God Pearl! You had my heart pounding there.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Your mom is amazing.
I'd have had to poop, too.

Jocelyn said...

This is one of those posts that has stuck with me since first reading. Thanks for the revisit.

20prospect said...

Wow. What a story. I held my breath through the whole thing. You have got to write a book. You got skillz girl.